McCain's Armenia Problem

"In the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada, that contrast could hurt McCain."

Eight years ago, George W. Bush was battling an unexpectedly competitive John McCain for the GOP’s presidential nomination. Scheduled to vote just days after South Carolina, Michigan suddenly looked decisive—and its substantial Armenian-American population became an attractive voting block.

Three days before the vote, Governor Bush sent a letter to two Armenian-American businessmen addressing the Armenian community’s biggest demand—recognition that the 1915 extermination of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was an act of genocide. The Turkish government to this day denies that any genocide occurred, and no president since Ronald Reagan has used that term while in office. Bush pledged to correct that. “The Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign,” he wrote. “If elected President, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people.” Bush lost in Michigan, won the presidency … and then bailed on his pledge. Last fall, the House of Representatives looked set to adopt a resolution affirming the Armenian genocide. But as Turkey threatened to disrupt its commercial ties with the United States and to invade Iraq, President Bush warned that America could not afford to alienate Turkey and pushed Congress to drop the measure.

Today, Edgar Hagopian, one of the letter’s two recipients, acknowledges his disappointment. “I have written to President Bush many times but have not gotten a response,” he said, reeling at the remarkable turnaround that transformed Bush into the biggest obstacle to an official recognition.

Bush’s record is sure to haunt McCain’s 2008 presidential run, but it’s not as if the Arizona senator needed any help in alienating Armenian-Americans. McCain’s own stance against genocide recognition and his relative indifference toward bilateral relations with Armenia have been a matter of record since well before George W. Bush emerged on the national stage. Barack Obama, conversely, looked committed to the affirmation of the events of 1915 as a genocide long before he decided on a presidential run. In fact, in the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In the case of states with a substantial Armenian-American presence (including California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada) that contrast could hurt McCain.

Historically, neither party has owned the support of Armenian-Americans. Rather than stake their fortune with one party, national advocacy groups—starting with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and the Armenian Assembly of America—have pursued a bipartisan course.

Thanks in part to this strategy, the Armenian-American community has grown into a highly effective interest group. Cory Welt of Georgetown’s Eurasian Strategy Project mentions the Armenian lobby’s strength as an explanation for what he calls the “exceptional” size of Armenian foreign aid. The Congressional Caucus on Armenian issues has a bipartisan leadership (it is co-chaired by a Democrat from New Jersey, Rep. Frank Pallone, and a Republican from Michigan, Rep. Joe Knollenberg) and a large contingent of 150 members, including 13 of Michigan’s 15 U.S. Representatives, 38 of California’s 53 and 11 of New Jersey’s 13.

As a result, there has been little partisan divide on issues like genocide recognition and Armenian foreign aid, and past presidential candidates on the left and on the right were careful to pander to Armenian-American concerns. George H. W. Bush and his son both talked of genocide prior to their election before resorting to euphemisms once in office; Bob Dole was one of the strongest advocates of recognition efforts, as was John Kerry, who also championed other issues including the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border.

Denis Papazian, the Founding Director of the University of Michigan's Center of Armenian Studies, explained that a sizable share of Armenian-American voters considers candidates’ stances on Armenian issues and can be swayed by a pledge to support genocide recognition efforts. For instance, Papazian pointed to the strong support the community offered Bob Dole in 1996. He also estimated that Bush’s letter during the 2000 campaign boosted his support in the Armenian-American community. "If two relatively neutral candidates are running,” Papazian explained, “Armenian American voters will stay within the party [they usually feel the closest to]. But if one of them makes a promise to recognize the genocide, he will get a lot of votes."

Papazian himself fits that description. A Dole supporter twelve years ago, he is now supporting Barack Obama—identifying the Illinois Senator’s stance on recognition as a crucial factor in that decision. Another prominent Armenian-American who has undergone the same transition is Oscar Tatosian, the Chairman of the Diocesan Council of the Armenian Church of America. He, too, was a Dole supporter; he, too, describes himself as an independent and identifies genocide recognition as a primary issue; he, too, is supporting Obama. Both well-connected and highly-involved members of the Armenian community, Papazian and Tatosian professed to knowing many who share their outlook.

Voters like Papazian and Tatosian are giving Democrats hope they can make inroads in  the Armenian community. And while this might simply be due to a coincidental combination of one-time factors—a hostile Republican Administration, an unusually enthusiastic Democratic candidate and an uncommonly skeptical Republican nominee—Armenian-American issues have a decidedly more partisan feel this year.

For one, the genocide question is only one of many issues on which the Bush Administration has attracted criticism from the Armenian community. Stephan Astourian, a professor of history at Berkeley, also lists “Bush’s attempts at cutting the allocation of foreign help for Armenia almost every year, his clear orientation towards oil-based money and pro-Azerbaijan stance”—a reference to Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over the province of Nagorno-Karabagh.

As importantly, McCain is the first presidential candidate in the past two decades who is on the record as opposing genocide recognition without already being a member of the incumbent Administration. Hagopian, one of the recipients of Bush’s letter in 2000, remains a strong conservative who supports McCain’s candidacy, but he admits his frustration with the Arizona Senator’s positions. “He has not been a friend of the Armenian community,” he said.

In 1990, McCain voted against a recognition resolution that was sponsored by then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. In 2000, campaigning for the Republican nomination in California, McCain confirmed that he would not support such a resolution. "It was not under this government in Turkey,” McCain said. “I don't see what this resolution does to improve this situation one iota." The Senator has stuck to his position in 2008, attracting widespread criticism from Armenian groups. “I think the most dangerous part of Senator McCain is that he is toeing the old Cold War era line that Turkey is this invaluable ally we cannot offend,” warned Areen Ibranossian, the Chairman of Armenians for Obama, a group promoting the Illinois Senator among Armenian-Americans nationwide. (The McCain campaign did not return my requests for an interview.)

By contrast, Obama has pledged that his Administration would recognize the 1915 extermination as an act of genocide. His campaign released two statements on this issue on January 19 and on April 28. “The facts are undeniable,” one statement said. “An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.” Dennis Papazian predicted that Armenian voters “will shift towards Obama because of their belief that he will recognize the genocide.”

Some Republicans like Edgar Hagopian predict that a President Obama would renege on his pledge just as President Bush did, but Obama’s supporters praise the sincerity of his commitment to Armenian-American concerns and point to his familiarity with these issues. “This is an individual who is more knowledgeable about Armenian-Americans than most candidates are and have been,” said Rep. Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who co-chairs the Caucus on Armenian Affairs. Obama spoke about the Armenian genocide well before launching his campaign, and many activists take that as reassurance that his stance is more than an electoral gimmick. Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokesperson for the ANCA, and Areen Ibranossian both cited an Obama press conference during a congressional trip to Azerbaijan in 2005. Asked about his support for genocide affirmation in a country that has a tense relationship with Armenia, Obama did not shy away from reiterating his stance, a moment Ibranossian described as “extraordinary.” “He had no reason to put out his neck and defend himself,” he said.

From the archives:

Bystanders to Genocide
The author's exclusive interviews with scores of the participants in the decision-making, together with her analysis of newly declassified documents, yield a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime. By Samantha Power

Nearly all of Obama’s backers also point to his relationship with a high-profile adviser who is ironically no longer part of his campaign. In her work on genocide prevention and in her book A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power has focused on the international community’s failure to recognize genocides like the one that decimated the Armenians in 1915, arguing that a proper understanding of past catastrophes is crucial to preventing genocides in the present. Power resigned from the campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” in March, but many in the Armenian community believe her outlook has shaped Obama’s foreign policy views.

The campaign’s January 19 statement, for instance, connected the recognition of the Armenian genocide with broader issues of genocide prevention. “A principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide,” the statement said, “starts with acknowledging the tragic instances of genocide in world history.”

The contrast between Obama and McCain extends more broadly to the United States’ relationship with the Republic of Armenia. Obama’s January 19th statement pledged to maintain Armenian foreign aid and to move toward a resolution of the Karabagh conflict that would respect the “principle of self-determination”—language close to Armenian demands. The ANCA’s Elizabeth Chouldjian praised Obama’s positions as “the strongest we’ve gotten from a candidate in over ten years.” (The ANCA endorsed Obama in January, just as it supported John Kerry in 2004; the group remained neutral in the 2000 election.) On the other hand, John McCain has remained largely silent on these issues, an attitude his critics deride as worrisome indifference.

The California-based Armenians for Obama group plans to educate Armenian-American voters about these differences. The organization is conducting extensive phone bank operations to contact as many Armenian-American voters in swing states as possible. “Our first objective is to make sure that all Armenians know Obama’s stance on issues,” said Ibranossian, the group’s chairman. “We take Obama’s message and try to make it more consumable by Armenian-Americans, more relatable to their concerns.”

Ibranossian argued that extensive outreach in large Armenian communities in the Detroit and Las Vegas regions could prove decisive. “If we can get them out to vote,” he said, “that could make the difference in swinging the election from red to blue.” Armenian Republicans are mounting an effort of their own to help McCain, but they are getting a late start and the organization they are relying on—the National Organization of Republican Armenians (NORA)—has been largely inoperative over the past eight years.

Like many others before him, Obama will have to weigh conflicting interests if he gets to the White House. Georgetown’s Cory Welt points out that Obama “has been insistent on the importance of reaching out to international partners and that Turkey will be one of the countries that he will want to reach out to. He will quickly find the genocide issue to be an obstacle.”

Until then, Obama’s position has given hope to many Armenian-Americans—even to those who are not planning on voting for him. A spokesperson for NORA and a McCain supporter, Peter Musurlian is nonetheless hopeful that President Obama might finally succeed in moving the United States towards genocide recognition. “I wouldn’t cry in my beer if Obama is elected, I would say let’s look at what he does on April 24th,” he said, in a reference to the commemorative date of the Armenian genocide. “Hopefully he will do better than President Bush.”